Saturday, June 12, 2010


Joseph O’Neill
For an older generation, the dinner party question de jour was always: “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” My generation ask: “Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?”
Well, I was living in Botswana. I had two children under the age of two. We had one children’s television programme every day; Teletubbies at 3pm. My friend Jenny was visiting with her son Angus, the children were lined up in a row on the sofa drinking UHT milk out of sippy cups...
A scream went up.
“No Teletubbies!”
Instead: “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you breaking news,” and the most extraordinary footage of aircraft flying, crash bang wallop, into the Twin Towers, New York.
Netherland is a book about the post traumatic stress suffered by Rachel and Hans, a European couple, who were in New York, living and working, that fateful September day.
Phlegmatic Hans remains stoic, but Rachel’s response is emotional; she’s too frightened to live in New York anymore; she’s convinced the city will be attacked again; she takes leave of absence from her high powered career and flies back to England with their son. But discourages Hans from following her... He must stay in dangerous New York, earning mega bucks as an equities analyst while she sleeps safe at her parents’ house. Oh, and he’s welcome to visit on alternate weekends.
So, Hans has been dumped by his wife. He gives up their loft in Tribeca and moves into the Chelsea Hotel, where he’s surrounded by eccentrics and artists. He eats out in cheap ethnic cafes. On his New York weekends he plays cricket with other immigrant New Yorkers; it’s a game he played as a child in the Netherlands, unlike his team mates who ‘had grown up playing the game in floodlit Lahore car parks or in rough clearings in some West Indian countryside.’
These are not lifestyle choices one would expect from a rich man like Hans but the alternative, he assures us, is that he spends all non-working moments lying prostrate on his hotel room floor staring at the ceiling, in a depression.
Instead cricket becomes his passion; everything else must take a back seat. He flies less often to England; he ducks out of important work dos.
He says, ‘Nobody understands better than I that this was a strange and irresponsible direction in which to take one’s life. But I’m reporting what happened.’
Through cricket he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a dodgy business man who dreams of building a cricket stadium and establishing a New York Cricket Club. They strike up an unlikely friendship; Chuck offers to teach Hans to drive; Hans is not so naive as not to know ‘it gave Chuck a measure of cover, maybe even prestige, to have a respectable-looking white man chauffeuring him while he ran around collecting bets all over Brooklyn.’
No surprise then, when Hans leaves New York for England, that Chuck ends up dead and his body dumped...
Joseph O’Neill is an Irish barrister. Netherland is his third novel. He says he likes to start writing ‘as inadvertently as possible. Then I continue as accidentally as possible.’ This is the genius of Netherland, that we’re dropped straight into the action – so unusual in such a literary novel.
VERDICT: This is only the second book I’ve ever read about cricket (the first has the unlikely title ‘Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’.) Both central characters, Hans and George Sherston, are very nice blokes, careful and philosophical, do you think that’s because they play cricket?

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